Celebrating women and sustainability

March 8, 2013

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women around the globe. It’s also a moment to think about the issues that concern women the most: equal access to education and jobs, health and safety, reproductive rights.

Oh, and the environment.

Wait, what?

As we’ve blogged before, there are clear connections between environmental issues and family planning, some of which have been spelled out over the past few years through various stories and blogs focused on a theme that can be described as “What’s good for women is good for the planet.” (Examples include a Huffington Post op-ed by Maggie Fox, Climate Reality Project; a joint op-ed in Grist by Population Action International’s Suzanne Ehlers and Sierra Club’s Michael Brune; and a white paper by Kavita Ramdas, with a forward by NRDC’s Frances Beinecke.)

But let’s turn that on its head for a minute. What’s good for the planet is good for women, too.

Sustainable communities are inseparable from a healthy environment – without clean air, healthy forests, abundant fish and wildlife, we cannot have healthy cities and towns. In much of the world, women bear the brunt of the responsibility for providing food and water for their families, for collecting fuel to heat their homes and cook meals. So when their communities are threatened by pollution, overfishing, deforestation and other traditional “environmental” issues, women are directly impacted.

This is particularly true in areas where livelihoods are tied to the land. But as extreme weather linked to climate change affects crops, water supplies, wildfire seasons and other issues around the globe, these impacts are increasingly affecting women everywhere.

“A woman’s life is hard, and climate change is making it harder,” says Aregash Ayele, an Ethiopian woman featured in Population Action International’s film Weathering Change.

How can we help? Giving women options that allow them to choose the timing and spacing of their children is one of the most cost-effective ways to help them cope with these environmental challenges. During her speech at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June 2012, then- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that “to reach our goals in sustainable development we also have to ensure women’s reproductive rights. Women must be empowered to make decisions about whether and when to have children.”

And when you give women choices about their children, they’ll make smart choices about their environment, too. When parents are worried about how to bring home enough food for their family’s next meal, they’re not worrying about whether they’re taking too many fish from the sea, or cutting down too many trees to sell or to grow crops. They’re not thinking about anything beyond that next meal.

In areas where family planning is readily available, parents choose the number of children that’s right for them. And that gives them the space to think longer term – about making sure their children will have fish to catch and healthy fields for their crops. In the Philippines, for example, filmmaker Sam Eaton encountered families who opted to have smaller families, thanks to the availability of family planning, and were then able to set aside portions of their fishing areas to allow fish populations to rebound.

“It’s hard to have opportunities for your children when there are so many,” said Eaton at a recent Wilson Center event, noting that community members “also understood the connection to conservation with these choices. If you have children that are hungry, you’re not going to think about the future of fishing tomorrow or the next day or three years from now.”

Providing family planning options can lead to measurable improvements in environmental health. Better environmental health leads to healthier, more sustainable communities. We’ve come full circle: What’s good for the planet is good for women. And vice versa.